Casey Affleck: Masculinity, Western, Fatherhood (Film Essay), April 2014.

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With a personal interest in representation of masculinity on screen, I’ve been looking at the star persona of Casey Affleck and his reconfiguration and reconstructing of rigid masculine models within the cinematic mainstream he’s often positioned in.

In the following article I’m engaging with representations of fatherhood and masculinity in relation to Casey Affleck’s star persona. My analysis will predominantly focus on representations of fatherhood in David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), however, I will also look at Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me (2010) and Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) as other examples of father/son dyads with Affleck located as the son figure. I will also look at how these films engage and successfully renegotiate the western genre that they enter into a dialogue with through their representation of fatherhood and masculinity. The Assassination of Jesse James, The Killer Inside Me and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints all take up a discourse of the status of the western hero and significantly complicate the traditional convergence of ‘outcast hero’ with ‘the official hero’ for the purposes of male reconciliation and preserved masculinity, as discussed by Krin Gabbard in his essay “Someone is Going to Pay”.  I believe that the representation of Affleck’s masculinity in all three films challenges such a formula of the western hero in the same way as their narratives challenge the formula of a “disguised Western”, clearly paying tribute to the sentimentality of the western genre. Susanne Kord and Elisabeth Krimmer in Contemporary Hollywood Narratives: Gender, Genre and Politics note that “the western hero is an archetype, not a person. He functions almost exclusively on the symbolic level as ‘iconic American’ – and this symbolic status leads to a conflation of actor and character.”[1] In the course of this essay I will aim to position Affleck in terms of negotiating the symbolic, iconic American that Kord and Krimmer speak of, bearing in mind the context of the western and its cultural significance.

The Assassination of Jesse James is particularly significant not only to my analysis of representations of masculinity and fatherhood in relation to Affleck’s star persona, but also to Affleck’s career thus far. It gained Affleck a wider popular and critical acclaim as well as his first Academy Award nomination. The plot revolves around the figure of Robert Ford who idolizes the notorious bandit, Jesse James. Bob follows Jesse and is eventually accepted as part of Jesse’s ensemble, despite the fact that James’s gang ends its criminal misdemeanors at the time when Ford appears. The film title immediately positions Bob’s character in opposition to an ideal of western masculinity. It also makes Bob’s redemption impossible, for cowardly behavior cannot be prescribed to a man. The ending, Bob’s failure both asthe ‘outcast hero’ and ‘the official hero’ depicts an utter failure of his manhood. To briefly illustrate the breadth of cultural significance of cowardice in terms of masculinity, I will refer to Joseph Roisman’s The Rhetoric of Manhood: Masculinity in the Attic Orators, who remarks, in his study of ancient Greece, that men who were severely condemned by the Greek society came under the category of “cowardice,” which was ascribed to men who “put their own safety and interests ahead of common weal or their own honor.”[2] Roisman adds that in ancient Greece “as the primary meaning of anandria and malakia (softness) connoted, cowardice meant lack of manhood.”[3] If we take a look at the Middle Ages, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology Clifford J. Rogers states that “cowardice in particular was deemed evidence of effeminacy.”[4] Thus the concept of cowardice as effeminate and positioned as opposite to masculinity far exceeds constructs of the western genre. Bravery thus grounds masculinity, whereas cowardice denies it. Prior even to the start of the film, Bob Ford’s character is underlined with an act of cowardice by the film’s title. Kord and Krimmer note the construction of characters of Jesse and Bob as contrasting, with Jesse identified as masculine and Ford feminine due to his act of cowardice. Krimmer states that “the relationship between Jesse and Bob is the uneasy one of a star and stalker, characterized by the all-too-extreme contrast between Bob’s obvious besottedness and Jesse’s casual indifference.”[5] Kord and Krimmer further point to the assassination of Jesse as the assassination of “an American myth.”[6] It is perhaps also the assassination of a mythological constructed masculinity that was never real in the first place. However the film deals with a man assassinating a serial killer, there is no place for sympathy for the “cowardly act” of Robert Ford.

Jesse James’s ideal masculinity beyond the fantastical realm of the western myth is located and grounded in Jesse’s fatherhood. Hannah Hamad in Postfeminism and Paternity in Contemporary US Film: Framing Fatherhood notes that “The ideal masculinity of his domestically located postfeminist fatherhood, at odds with the competing formation of masculinity that characterizes his public sphere identity, thus ‘frames his assassination,’ imbuing his death with heightened pathos through an efficacious affective appeal to identify with the paternal idyll thus proffered.”[7] Jesse is assassinated shortly after the audience gets a glimpse of him as a doting father, looking out for his children and taking them and his wife to a local church. Moreover, he is assassinated within a domestic space, at home as a man who has retired. Conclusively, Bob shoots Jesse the father, not Jesse James the bandit. Jesse’s victimhood and redemption lie in his fatherhood. Bob, on the other hand, could never achieve the mythical masculinity of Jesse as the ‘outcast’ villain in his then redundant gang. Nor could he ever earn respect as the ‘official hero’, as a man of law and a father, despite his assassination of the serial bandit, Jesse. Bob is therefore assassinated as a coward and as a non-father – both cultural and historical indicatives of failed manhood.

CA.jpg            Jennifer Feather and Catherine E. Thomas in Introduction: Reclaiming Violent Masculinities note that “men’s capacity to imagine, control, and enact violence has come to define normative masculinity in both Western and global contexts.”[8] Whereas cowardice underscores the character of Bob, extreme violence underlines the character of Lou Ford, the protagonist of The Killer Inside Me who is a deputy sheriff in a small town in West Texas. Similarly, the status of the “official hero” of a deputy sheriff is confused with the villain figure of a sadist murderer in the character of Lou Ford in The Killer Inside. This initial state of conflict is complicated even further when the film subtly implies Lou being a victim of early sexual exposure by his babysitter, who exposed young Lou to masochistic pleasure, which in the film accounts for his sexual violence against women. Lou takes pleasure in sexual violence against women, which, the film suggests, is triggered by the prostitute he visits who slaps him in the face. At both instances women are blamed for Lou’s behaviour, as respectively the cause and trigger of his extreme violence. Despite the film’s attempt to suggest that Lou enjoys sadomasochistic practices, his sexual encounters are predominantly informed by Lou enacting violence on Joyce rather than taking pleasure in violence enacted upon him.

Lou’s representation of masculinity is further complicated through the separation of himself from the enunciator of murders he commits. As he brutally beats Joyce up, Lou is soft spoken and repeats how much he loves her. There is a clear Dr Jekyll/Mr. Hyde dynamic at play in the film. Here too, the title itself suggests the otherness to the killer separate from the subject, the killer inside Lou taking over him. This then leads us to look at Lou’s masculinity in terms of masculine anxiety and repression. Philippa Gates in her book Detecting Men: Masculinity and the Hollywood Detective Film notes that “in the serial killer narrative, women – the major threat to dominant masculinity – are kidnapped, tortured, raped, mutilated, and killed in a spectacularly gruesome manner. Their deaths represent the extreme of violence.” [9] The only empowered woman that we see in the film is, arguably, Lou’s babysitter, who appears dominant in control with a young boy. She marks the threat to Lou’s masculinity. As she takes pleasure in the pain enacted upon her in sexual encounters with his father, she escapes the last resort of masculine dominance and control: the exercise of physical strength. Lou thus struggles to regain the realm of power he considers his by the primordial law of masculinity, his exercise of power becoming excessive and gruesome. Importantly to my discussion of fatherhood, The Killer Inside Me locates the source of Lou’s aggression in his father when his babysitter tells Lou to do “what his daddy did.” Lou is therefore burdened with paternal legacy of sexual violence. There is a sense of falseness and disappointment to the figure of the father in The Killer Inside Me. This is indirectly represented by the domineering and violent Lou’s father, but also Lou as the symbolic father figure as the representative of the law and order who ultimately fails those he protects.

I believe that conflict in the representation of masculinity in Lou’s character is also informed by Affleck’s star persona. Affleck up to the point had been associated mostly with dorky, effeminate characters, his youthful look and high-pitched voice often remarked upon and being the subject of jokes within the narrative. Culturally, effeminacy has always been the source of comedy with comedy serving as the annihilator of a potential male anxiety. Affleck’s character in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven (2001) is particularly the example of establishing an effeminate male as, what Kathrina Giltre in Hollywood Romantic Comedy: States of the Union 1934-1965 defines as “the typical … comedy sidekick, ‘the site of all that [is] suppressed in the figure if the hero.”[10] In one particular scene his character operates a toy car, whilst his partner-in-crime drives into the frame in the truck, the scene eliciting an explicit phallic reading and Affleck character’s position’s as the one lacking in masculinity. To reaffirm the visual clue, the man in a truck shouts towards Virgil, “You’re just like a little girl!” In Gone Baby Gone (2007) Affleck’s character Patrick is continually perceived by other men, whether the policemen or men in a bar he encounters, as not masculine enough. As the policemen leading the case of an abducted child pick on him, his girlfriend, Angie, steps in and says, “He just looks young,” to the policemen’s surprise that Patrick is thirty one years old. Talking about Gone Baby Gone (2007) Linda Seidel in her book Mediated Maternity: Contemporary American Portrayals of Bad Mothers in Literature and Popular Culture describes the film as a detective story with “stereotypically masculine virtues (…): physical bravery, clever sleuthing, and the quest for justice.”[11] These, however in a much less glamorized fashion, are of a subtle concern to the narrative of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, whose protagonist, Bob, escapes from prison to reunite with his wife and child.

casey3Ain’t Them Bodies Saints represents Affleck’s masculinity at its most unified in terms of the convergence of the ‘outcast’ and the ‘official’ hero discussed above, the transformation of his onscreen masculinity, as I will argue, due toconfluence of fatherhood with his character. The film is on both formal and narrative level much indebted to the romantic sensibilities of the New Hollywood films of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The film that particularly strikes as being similar to Ain’t Them Bodies Saints in terms of its representation of crime and gender is Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) as the story of the former revolves around a pair of criminals, Ruth and Bob. Although the sexual potential is erased (or at least located out of the norm) from Bonnie and Clyde’s narrative as a result of Clyde’s frigidity, Ruth and Bob are romantically involved, which at the beginning of the film has a consequence – Ruth falls pregnant. During one of their criminal escapades Ruth shoots the policeman, Patrick Wheeler, for which Bob takes the blame and consequently serves a prison sentence. We can ascertain that the protection Bob exercises is both of the marital as well as paternal nature. He protects both Ruth and his baby. Iris Marion Young in her article “The Logic of Masculinist Protection: Reflections on the Current Security State” discusses the logics of masculine protection. Young identifies the protector as the man who “keeps vigilant watch over the safety of his family and readily risks himself in the face of threats from the outside in order to protect the subordinate members of his household. The logic of masculinist protection, then, includes the image of the selfish aggressor who wishes to invade the lord’s property and sexually conquer his women.”[12] Despite not disagreeing with Young’s claim, I believe that Ain’t Them Bodies Saints successfully challenges it in its narrative structure, mostly in its portrayal of Ruth. However in the course of the narrative Bob is the absent father, his desperate quest to become a present father does not remove the character of Ruth or even sideline her, which is a trait recurrent in paternal narratives of redemption such as Robert Benton Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition (2002),Pierre Morel’s Taken (2008) or even Derek Cianfrance The Place Beyond the Pines (2012). In all of these films, the female character is sidelined to enable a representation of fatherhood whilst preserving the father’s masculinity. Ruth, however, is portrayed both as a caring, affectionate and doting mother and an independent, strong woman with a penchant for crime. Despite the separate spheres of Ruth and Bob’s parenthood and its different nature, the film thus successfully delivers a representation of a balanced parenthood.

There are two males in the narrative that threaten Bob’s position as a father: Skerritt, Bob’s former partner-in-crime’s father and Ruth and Sylvie’s self-claimed guardian, living next door to her, and Patrick, the policeman that Ruth accidentally shot, who takes a liking to Ruth. Skerritt occupies the oedipal position as he presents himself as an obstacle to Bob’s familial happiness through the oppressive father figure. Upon Bob’s visit, Skerritt exercises his own paternal position towards Ruth and Sylvie, telling Bob to stay away from them and thus treating both as the thing he claimed upon the loss of his own son. Bob is the aggressor to both him and Patrick as he returns to destroy the new order that was established upon his departure. The film elicits an interesting take on step-parenthood, which contrasts the unfavourable portrayals of stepfathers in Taken or The Place Beyond the Pines. Kim Leon and Erin Angst in their study of representations of stepfamilies in Portrayals of Stepfamilies in Film: Using Media Images in Remarriage Education confirm the replication of certain stereotypes regarding stepfamilies in the media, such as “stepfamilies: stepchildren resenting stepparents, stepchildren having problems, the wicked stepmother, the abusive stepfather, the neglected or unloved stepchild.”[13] However such is not the portrayal in neither Taken nor The Place Beyond the Pines, the former emasculates a figure of a stepfather to enhance the supremacy of the biological father, the latter sidelines and makes unimportant a figure of the stepfather for exactly the same. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints does not present its audience with such purpose. The figure of Patrick in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is from the start positioned as paternal. Upon his first meetings with Ruth, Patrick enquires about Sylvie and subsequently is the only person present at Sylvie’s birthday. Patrick’s presence does not overwhelm Bob’s absence, however it symbolically intrudes Bob’s entering the house. It is unclear whether Bob knows of someone else present in the house upon his arrival, but he decides not to enter. Patrick in his candid treatment of Ruth and her daughter as well as in his awkwardness, shyness and honesty does not succumb to either the clichéd hyper-masculine cop figure or the prototype of the domineering Western masculinity, which is reflected in the character of Skerritt. The film escapes rigid classifications of masculinity or parenthood, in the vein of what Krim and Kord state in reference to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005): “rigid concepts of masculinity destroy human potential.”[14]

In this essay I have analysed Casey Affleck’s representation of masculinity in the selected films and how his star-persona affects the representations of masculinity in the characters that he plays. I believe that Affleck’s representation of masculinity escapes the “rigid concepts of masculinity” of contemporary Hollywood cinema. As the focus of my essay I have aimed to argue that Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, with its conflation of Affleck’s character with fatherhood, transforms the preceding representations of masculinity by Affleck, successfully positioning him as more masculine, whilst allowing his hitherto masculinity to challenge what masculine means. I have also argued that in fact Ain’t Them Bodies Saints transforms not only Affleck’s own representation of masculinity on screen but, in its complex portrayals of Ruth and Patrick, also successfully challenges the representation of parenthood and stepfatherhood in film.

[1] Susanne Kord and Elisabeth Krimmer, Contemporary Hollywood Narratives: Gender, Genre and Politics (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 62.

[2] Joseph Roisman, The Rhetoric of Manhood: Masculinity in the Attic Orators (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005), 188.

[3] Roisman, 188.

[4] Clifford J. Rogers, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 579.

[5] Kord and Krimmer, 62.

[6] Kord and Krimmer, 62.

[7]Hamad, Hannah, Postfeminism and Paternity in Contemporary US Film: Framing Fatherhood (New York: Routledge, 2014), 47.

[8] Jennifer Feather and Catherine E. Thomas, “Introduction: Reclaiming Violent Masculinities,” in Violent Masculinities: Male Aggression in Early Modern Texts and Culture, eds. Jennifer Feather, and Catherine E. Thomas (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 9.

[9] Philippa Gates. Detecting Men: Masculinity and the Hollywood Detective Film. (New York: State University of New York, 2006), 188.

[10] Katharina Giltre, Hollywood Romantic Comedy: States of the Union 1934-1965 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), 43.

[11] Linda Seidel, Mediated Maternity: Contemporary American Portrayals of Bad Mothers in Literature and Popular Culture (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2013), 35.

[12]Iris Marion Young in her article “The Logic of Masculinist Protection: Reflections on the Current Security State”  http://www.signs.rutgers.edu/content/Young,%20Logic%20of%20Masculinist%20Protection.pdf4

[13]Kim Leon and Erin Angst in “Portrayals of Stepfamilies in Film: Using Media Images in Remarriage Education,” Family Relations 54, no. 1 (2005): 6.

[14] Kord and Krim, 78.

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